Monday, February 9, 2009

Never Have I Ever Been Chased by a Man Dressed Like a Bear in the Southern France Wilderness…Oh wait, yes I have.

I don’t know what it is about southern France, but it seems like nearly every weekend, I have something bizarre happen to me; some new place to get stuck in, some new hi-jinx to get myself into, et cetera et cetera…This weekend, of course, was absolutely no different.

Friday was the last day of work before mid-winter vacation, and we had several out of town friends coming in to visit for the weekend. Isabel mentioned a festival that the Catalan teacher at our Lycee mentioned that was taking place on Sunday in a little village called Prades-de-Mollo about two hours away from Perpignan, right by the Spanish border. This is serious Catalan country—it was so weird but also really cool to be in the middle of a crowd of people, most of whom were speaking Catalan amongst themselves. The festival was called “La Fete de L’ours” which means the Festival of the Bear. Nobody really knew what it was all about, although Isabel did say that we needed to wear clothing that we could throw away afterwards. Hmmmm….suspicious, but Isabel is persuasive, and we managed to get two cars full of people willing to go to a strange place with “throw-away” clothing. We got there a little late (after a fiasco involving a burnt out clutch and two trips in Isabel’s tiny Toyota), and followed the crowds into a cute little medieval village with cobble stone roads and ruins and a castle on top of the hill, and cute French houses with bright colored shutters. The usual.

The festival began around 3 o’clock, but it seemed like people had been milling around, talking, being Catalan, drinking, and generally making merry for a few hours. The bears, a nice 8 year old boy sitting on a stone wall explained to us, come from the castle up on the hill. They are covered in black grease paint, have been drinking for several hours, are wearing matted fur suits, and carry a greasy black stick that they threaten people with, or, in my case, hit people in the stomach with. There were three bears, and as far as we could tell the point of the festival was for the three bears to chase the villagers around the town, attacking them and smearing black grease paint on their faces. The bears are surrounded by a convoy of men dressed in camo and red berets, who also had grease paint on their faces, guerrilla-style. They were carrying supplies for re-greasing, and re-fueling (bottles upon bottles of rosé) the bear, as well as rifles that they periodically shot into the air. It was actually quite terrifying. No one really explained what any of this was for, or what it symbolized, but we all concluded that it probably has something to do with man’s triumph over animal, or nature, or something…

The first thirty minutes or so of the festivities involve crowds of people running from the gun-wielding men and the greasy bears. We were actually, genuinely scared. Seeing a crazy man dressed in fur rugby tackle someone to the ground, smearing grease paint on his face isn’t the most reassuring thing in the world. Towards the end of the first hour, it turned into the crowds chasing and taunting the bears, rather than the other way around. People would follow the band playing the theme song for the festival (a tune whose lyrics were, actually, la laala lala lala la lala la la alalalalal lalalalalala), the rifle shots, the banging of the bears’ sticks on the ground, and the crowd’s shouts and groans to find the bears, who would then run at the cutest girls or the most pompous looking guys to cover them in paint. I guess the deal is that if you get tagged by the bear within the first half hour, it’s kind of shameful, so everyone runs away. On the other hand, if you finish the night with a white face, there’s something wrong with you, and you are shamed.

Emma was the first of our group to get tagged. The bear ran up, pinning our little group against the stone fortress’ wall. He put his hands on either side of her head, pecked her on the mouth, and then wiped his hands all over her face. Then he ran away. I managed to stay clean for a while, until some random dude came up to me a few hours in, holding a blackened cork. He told me in French that I was too white, and that it annoyed him, and so he wiped the cork on my face. A few minutes later, the real bear ran by, stopped when he saw Jon and I, and got us both within the same minute.

Inexplicably, to us non-Catalans at least, in the middle of a square full of people taunting the bears, five or six men dressed in white coats and covered in white paint, flailing chains and scraping dull hatchets along the ground pushed their way through the crowd.

Later on, after we had all gotten tagged, we decided we were cold, tired, hungry, and thirsty, and so we went into one of the café/bars along the main square (we had to wait for the bears and the guerrilla soldiers to leave before we could go in) to get a drink and something to eat. Emma and I were sitting at the table while the guys tried to wash some of the grease paint off their hands, and the people dressed in white started to come into the pub. One of them came up to our table, and starting to pretend to sharpen his axe on our marble table. His buddy came up with a bucket full of blood sausages (a Catalan specialty), holding one in his hand. He then proceeded to rub the blood sausage all over my face, and then the man with the hatchet told me to be still or he would cut me—he was rubbing the blade of the hatchet along my face. I think it was kind of like shaving me? I don’t know—there was no explanation for that, either. All I know is cold blood sausage juice dripping into my mouth and onto my sweatshirt is nasty.

We moved to a different bar shortly afterward, and found the rest of our group of people. We ordered sandwiches and a few drinks, and stuck around for a bit of the after party. The most memorable moments from the night include dancing the YMCA wearing black grease paint with a bunch of Catalan people in a bar, the camo-man that had a flask of something he was sharing with everyone, the short old man (we’re talking really really short) who pulled from the previously mentioned man’s flash while wearing Jon’s aviators and trying to speak to us in Catalan, and the creepy man in the white coat and paint that stuck his tongue in mine and Emma’s ears—apparently if you are at a Catalan festival and you are a French person, you can do whatever you want. This is what I’ve learned this weekend.

After the drive back to Perpignan, we all took turns scrubbing our faces in my bathroom. Throughout the whole day, I would sometimes look at one of my friend’s faces and burst out laughing, because I remembered what we were doing and where we were. We were in a tiny mountain village in southern France, getting chased by a man in a bear suit, covered in black grease paint, having the time of our lives. And there’s nothing funnier than that.

I’ve added pictures of this to the Snapfish account for posterity’s sake. Check them out!


Chelsea said...

That, actually, sounds amazing. Slightly terrifying, but amazing.

Scar said...

you are f-ing hilarious!!! i am so jealous of you...i've always wanted to get chased by drunk bears who smear grease-paint on my face!!! ditto to the french guy sticking his tongue in my ear--oops did i just say that??

BEQN said...

Oh my god. Oh my god. OH MY GOD. Stephen Colbert would be so afraid...
This story just made my day.

Joanne said...

Crazy!! Sort of a whole new twist on Goldilocks and the 3 bears--you being Goldilocks of course.

B-Gabbard Fam said...

HA! You are going to be so bored with me next week!